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If your loved one refuses cancer treatment

There are people who choose not to get any cancer treatment. This can be very hard for family and friends who may not agree with this choice. But for the most part, people who are able to make decisions for themselves have the right to refuse any and all treatment.

As someone who cares about and supports the person with cancer, you may wonder why they would make this choice. Sometimes, the person has health problems that make cancer treatment harder or more risky. Others may feel that with their age and life history, it’s just “their time.” Sometimes, the person’s religious beliefs come into play. There are many reasons why people choose to not get cancer treatment.

It’s OK to ask your loved one about their reasons for refusing cancer treatment. Even though the answer may be hard to hear, the choice to refuse treatment is the patient’s—no one else’s. Often, the reasons make sense and give you a better idea of what’s going on. It’s also OK to tell the patient what you think. You may say something like, “I hadn’t thought about it that way, and I’m glad you shared your point of view with me.” Or, “I wish you would talk to a doctor about treatment options, but I will support your choice and help you through this time the best that I can.”

Even after a person refuses cancer treatment, it’s important to make sure they fully understand their options. You may want to ask the person to talk with a doctor about the decision and any possible treatments that might help. Some patients will agree to talk with the doctor, and others won’t. But don’t be surprised if, after talking with a doctor, the person still refuses treatment. Again, this person has the right to make their own choices, just as you have the right to feel the way you do. Try to see it from the point of view of the person with cancer, and continue to offer your support and friendship.

Supportive care can still help people who are sure that they don’t want to be treated for cancer. Sometimes called palliative care, supportive care helps keep people with cancer from having severe pain, nausea, or other symptoms, whether or not they are getting cancer treatment. And the person who refuses cancer care may still want to enter hospice.

Hospice workers give palliative care so that symptoms can be controlled as the cancer runs its course. They also try to help the family and the patient make the most of the time they have left. A patient who is able to make decisions may choose to refuse this care, too. If that happens, loved ones usually work with the situation as best they can, but should keep offering hospice and palliative care as an option. This can be especially crucial as the patient’s condition gets worse—the time may come when the family and loved ones cannot manage without help.


Last Medical Review: 01/10/2013
Last Revised: 02/20/2014